This is my second time reading this novel - and let's just say: Bujold's books are eminently re-readable. No matter whether you've read them once already (like this one 12 or so years ago) or multiple times (like Cordelia's Honor, Memory, A Civil Campaign)... love her writing style, her Miles-voice, her way of establishing different cultures. That alone makes for quite a high rating. But let's focus on "Cetaganda".
Miles and Ivan are on their way to the Cetagandan homeworld to attend the funeral of the late Empress when their flight is rerouted and they are attacked. During the fight they get ahold of a strange device whose origin, they later learn, is the Imperial Star Crèche, where all Cetagandan genetic information is stored. During an official funeral procession, Miles discovers their attacker dead at the late Empress's feet, an apparent death by suicide, and he learns from Rian, the handmaiden of the Star Crèche, that the device, the Great Key, is essential to the future of the Cetagandan Empire. Miles realizes that he's stepped into a far more dangerous mystery than he originally thought: one that could destroy the Cetgandan Empire from the inside... and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Barrayar.
"Cetaganda" offers an intriguing glimpse into Cetagandan society with their genetic engineering, and the question of who controls whom - but it also shows that Miles still isn't able to trust his superiors, or rather that he's a teamplayer but only when and if he's the one calling the shots. And additionally there's his inherent inferiority complex due to his physical impairments to consider which practically forces him to try and prove himself through his wits at every turn... especially since no one may know of his real role within ImpSec, and everyone believes he has his job through nepotism (a thought on which he at times reluctantly relies to throw people off his scent). All this turns him into a very complex character with distinct flaws - but honestly, I just love him, his internal voice is so precious and his struggles within the system (i.e. his conversations with Vorreedi, his de facto boss on Cetaganda) are an absolute joy to read, as are the mutal interrogations with Benin. I admit I have a thing for intelligence, for smart people and how they act around each other - and this is one of the Vorkosigan-series's strengths.
And there's also Ivan who stumbles from one blunder to the next, who's presented as the ideal subordinate who likes to have orders and doesn't much think about them - and who also likes to transfer any problems to his superiors to mull about, leaving him without worries. At least, that's the picture he likes to project. But then there's the Ivan who's loyal to a fault to Miles (and vice versa I guess, despite any teasing) - and who actually comes up with the solution. Well, he does come from a very similar gene-pool as Miles, just that he's learned that sometimes it's opportune to remain in the background, to set up smoke-screens in order to defer attention from yourself. Quite the contrast to Miles.
I won't really get into Cetagandan internal affairs here, because you actually need to read those 300 pages to get some inkling of understanding. It's just a really interesting society, with the haut lords practically running the place, and the ghem-lords securing power for them. Not to mention the role of the haut ladies who essentially rule over the genetic legacy, whose genome is worthy continuing on, whose family is going to die out - and all this information is centralized in one location which starts the whole affair. So despite the differences, the whole genetic engineering issues, is the Cetagandan system of haut rule so different compared with the Barrayaran with their Vor (except for the female role which on Cetaganda is more advanced than on Barrayar)?
But the genetic engineering serves for quite a few curiosities as well, such as the kitten-tree... or the ethereal beauty of the haut ladies... who knows, perhaps Miles is so intoxicated by Rian's beauty and that's the reason why he won't report to his superiors. Well, at least that would be a simpler explanation than his inherent issues.
In the end, the Cetagandan system survives because of Miles's actions - and he's rewarded, even if this reward by the Cetagandan Emperor comes with the effect of raising suspicions within the Barrayarans. So for once, he gets recognized for his actions but he won't actually be able to show his medal back on Barrayar. Quite the move by the Cetagandan Emperor, ensuring the whole affair remains secret. The only thing that remains a bit unexplained is the concrete motivation of the culprit in the first 2 attacks against Miles and Ivan. For one thing Miles is a scapegoat, that's not the problem. But why target his infirmities with the fountain (which, like an MRT-device, heats up all metal and therefore burns Miles''s feet in their braces) or Ivan's by the pheromones? Just to ridicule them? To throw them off? Or was this left to the personal touch and revenge of the Cetagandan artist whose grandfather fought in the Barrayaran invasion?
Overall, this is an intriguing novel which, for once, puts Miles just in the role of Lord Vorkosigan representing Barrayar in the state funeral (he's 2rd in line for the throne after his father, after all), no Dendarii Mercenaries, no political intrigue on Barrayar, no depressed Gregor - and still he manages to stumble into a major plot. I'm looking forward to revisit Cetaganda in later books because Dag Benin, haut Pel and, of course, haut Rian left a very positive and interesting impression.
Still, despite the positive things I've said, I prefer Miles interacting with Barrayarans, dealing with troubles at (or closer to) home, forcing him to face his physical and mental issues as well as the prejudice on his homeworld, which is why "Cetaganda", despite being enjoyable, doesn't quite have the same impact on me as previous (and later) novels within the series.